In many of her films, [Setsuko] Hara’s luminous smile communicates a variety of sentiments – sometimes she smiles out of genuine love, sometimes as an attempt to hide pain. In the rare moments when Hara’s characters cry, after otherwise accepting all of life’s misfortunes, the emotional release can be heartbreaking. – Ronald Bergan
Last night I found out that Setsuko Hara, who was one of the five “divas” of Japanese cinema in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (along with Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyô and Hideko Takamine), passed away on September 5. She had been hospitalized with pneumonia, and in accordance with her wishes that “no fuss be made,” her family did not tell the media of her death until yesterday. When Hara retired from acting in 1963 (though her last film was released in 1966), she never gave a definite explanation. She remained almost completely isolated from public life for the next half-century, a Garbo-like recluse, although she lived near her family in the Kanagawa prefecture of Kantō. Except for one interview that she gave in 1992, Hara kept out of the public eye and I don’t think there are any confirmed photographs of her from after the 1960s.
Hara, who was nicknamed “The Eternal Virgin” for the kinds of roles she usually played onscreen, never married and I don’t think anything is publicly known about her love life, if she had one. Some rumors about her reasons for retiring were that she had been in love with her most frequent collaborator, director Yasujirô Ozu (who died of cancer in December 1963) – although I have also read rumors that Hara may have been a lesbian, a hunch probably based solely on her never having wed – and another rumor was that she went blind. In her final press conference, Hara said that she had only gone into acting to support her family and she had never enjoyed doing it, so maybe she simply stopped when she was secure enough financially. Whatever the reason, perhaps it is better that the details of Setsuko Hara’s life remain a mystery; that’s the way she wanted it.
Here are a few clips from some of my favorite films starring Setsuko Hara:
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946, dir. Akira Kurosawa) – Here is an assortment of clips from the film, set to Bach’s “Air on the G String.” In a 2008 essay written for the Criterion Collection, Michael Koresky noted that “alone in Kurosawa’s body of work, this film aligns itself with the point of view of a female protagonist: Yukie, played by the brilliantly expressive Setsuko Hara. Moving from bourgeois complacency to social activism, Yukie—the daughter of a conservative university professor and eventual wife of one of his students, an anti-imperial intellectual from a peasant family—is the film’s emotional anchor, guiding us through the political and cultural turmoil of Japan from 1933 to 1945.”
Late Spring (1949, dir. Yasujirô Ozu) – This is a great example of the loveliness of Setsuko Hara’s smile, a grin that could light up the whole room (or, in this case, the outdoors). In 2005, Roger Ebert wrote that Hara was “a great star who would drop everything to work with Ozu. When the studio asked Ozu to consider a different actress for the second film, he refused to make it without Hara.” Furthermore, “Late Spring tells a story that becomes sadder the more you think about it. There is a tension in the film between Noriko’s smile and her feelings. Her smile is often a mask. She smiles brightly during a strange early scene where she talks with a family friend, Onodera, who has remarried after the death of his wife. Such a second marriage is ‘filthy and foul,’ she says, and it disgusts her. She smiles, he laughs. Yet she is very serious … So much happens out of sight in the film, implied but not shown. Noriko smiles but is not happy. Her father passively accepts what he hates is happening. The aunt is complacent, implacable, maddening. She gets her way. It is universally believed, just as in a Jane Austen novel, that a woman of a certain age is in want of a husband. Late Spring is a film about two people who desperately do not believe this, and about how they are undone by their tact, their concern for each other, and their need to make others comfortable by seeming to agree with them.”
Tokyo Story (1953, dir. Yasujirô Ozu) – As Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian in 2010: “[Hara] had a recurring role as Noriko in a trilogy of Ozu films: Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1954), the first of which was reworked as Late Autumn (1960). Of these, it is Tokyo Story – routinely hailed as one of the best films ever made – that can never be forgotten once seen, and Setsuko Hara’s exquisite performance is surely a vital part of what makes this film Ozu’s masterpiece. It is about an elderly married couple who make the tough journey to the big city to visit their busy grown-up children, only to find that they have no time for their parents, and the only person who does is their daughter-in-law Noriko, played by Hara. She is the widow of the son who is still listed missing presumed killed in the second world war. This vulnerable old couple are the only link she has to her husband: they are the only people it makes sense for her to love, and she appears to be the only person who loves them. Her desperately polite smile, her dignity and the quiver of heartbreak in her voice are absolutely captivating. I defy anyone to watch this film and not feel simply overwhelmed with a kind of love for Hara – however absurd that may sound.” Indeed, watching clips of Hara from the Tokyo Story trailer, or the brief scene at the end when she looks at her late mother-in-law’s watch, one knows without a shadow of a doubt that Setsuko Hara was one of the truly great actresses in our world’s cinema.